Sunday Times, 07 February 2016
ALIENS have been watching Earth for centuries, perhaps millennia. They are our enemies. They abduct people in order to study or alter them in some way. They plan to enslave or destroy us. Governments know about this. They have access to alien technology and even to alien corpses recovered from a spacecraft that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Secret organisations are co-operating with the aliens.
That, in a nutshell, is one of the most potent and familiar myths of our time. It has been embedded in global culture by novels, television shows and films and by what are said to be witness accounts. Millions believe the story is true and many claim to have been abducted, their previously buried memories of the incident often being retrieved under hypnosis.
I was once hypnotised to test this phenomenon; the first thing I saw with absolute clarity — and, at the time, belief — was a massive flying saucer hovering amid some trees.
The basics of the myth are ancient. There is evidence of tales of visitors from the sky dating back thousands of years and, of course, many religions speak of a god or gods “up there”. But the current paranoid, hi-tech form of the story is new.
It was never more thrillingly or inventively told than by a television series, The X-Files, nine seasons of which ran from September 1993 to May 2002. Garlanded with awards and having spawned two films, the show now returns with the original cast for a six-part sequel.
Those dates are crucial. With superb — although serendipitous — timing, The X-Files lived through the rise of the internet, the fall of the twin towers and the arrival of the millennium. The first endorsed the paranoid sense of a vast technological system far beyond the capacity of our own minds, the second the fear of unseen, malign forces and the third the visionary notion of a moment of transformation.
Through this ominous landscape wandered the FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, he a firm believer, she an equally firm — perversely, in view of the overwhelming evidence with which she was presented weekly — sceptic. He was as pure as a Round Table knight, she primly reticent, until a celebrated kiss in series seven. They were, in short, typical heroes of a quest myth. And the show’s tag line — “The truth is out there” — signalled the purity of this quest as well as its religious overtones.
“The show is basically a religious show,” said Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files. “It’s about the search for God.”
True, but this omits a crucial ingredient: paranoia. It is this that explains the potency of the contemporary alien myth.
The modern phenomenon of UFO sightings and alien corpses has many precedents. There was, for example, a report in a French newspaper in 1864 of a 3ft humanoid creature with a “trunk” projecting from the middle of its forehead. There was a UFO wave in California in 1896, and in 1909 “atomic-powered spaceships from Mars” were confidently reported in New Zealand.
But these were random events; they needed focus. It was found on August 6, 1945, when an atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima. To an unsuspecting public this was a terrifying technology made more terrifying by the fact that it seemed to involve the restructuring of the essence of matter. Human life could now be wiped out by humans — or by aliens. The idea that governments had access to alien technology was to fire generations of conspiracy theorists.
On June 24, 1947, in the Cascade mountains in Washington state, a businessman, Kenneth Arnold, saw a squadron of alien spacecraft. Two weeks later the Roswell Daily Record newspaper published the most sensational story ever written.
“The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer.”
Roswell was the home of the 509th Bomb Wing, a descendant of the 509th Composite Group that had dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Record’s story was quashed but the paranoid mythology had been born. UFO sightings and, subsequently, abductions became common. A survey in the early 1990s concluded that 5m Americans “have experienced events consistent with those that abductees experienced before they knew they were abductees”.
The atom bomb implied that humans had finally gone too far and suggested to many that judgment must be at hand. This led to the creation of a preachy species of extraterrestrial, most famously in the form of Klaatu, the judgmental alien ambassador in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still.
“Your choice is simple,” he says on his departure from Earth back to an intergalactic federation of planets. “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”
Abductee reports thereafter frequently involved angry, preachy aliens, often with quasi-religious demands. “You must learn to live in peace and harmony,” one abductee was told, “but you have to do it by yourselves, and that implies gaining a new level of conscience.”
Don Siegel’s superb 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which showed aliens emerging from pods as perfect models of human characters, was a paranoid metaphor for the communist threat. Commie spies were scary because they looked like normal people.
As alien phenomena proliferated round the world, only one man with any real authority attempted to get to the heart of the matter. In 1959, two years before his death, the great psychologist Carl Jung published Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. He saw exactly what was new, what was very old and what was driving the sightings and abduction.
“In the threatening situation of the world today,” he wrote, “when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organisations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space, where the rulers of human fate, the gods, once had their abode . . .”
And so when Carter pitched the idea of The X-Files to studio executives, he did so in the confidence that the material at his disposal — abductee and witness accounts, conspiracy theories, exact details of alien physiognomy, numerous examples of proven government cover-ups, psychological and philosophical heft — was in effect limitless.
When I spoke to Gillian Anderson, who plays Scully, she remarked on the way the ground had been laid for the show, notably by the proliferation of conspiracy theories after the assassination of John F Kennedy and the events of 9/11.
“Because of 9/11 . . . conspiracy has so much more weight to it; it means so much more,” she said. “Before, we were talking about conspiracies around Kennedy being shot, but we’ve gone way, way beyond that.”
Moreover, Carter must have known that most, if not all, of his audience would in some part of their imaginations entertain the possibility that Mulder might be right — the truth was out there and it was small, large-headed and probably green. I know when I was writing my book — Aliens: Why They Are Here — I found myself, to the dismay of friends and family, slipping into a kind of belief.
The return of The X-Files makes sense. The mythology is as potent as ever. The 1996 film Independence Day — a tale of very bad aliens indeed — is also back with a sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, to be released in June, in which the enemy returns flying bigger and better ships.
Furthermore, the idea of the enemy within is even more evocative than it was during the years of the communist witch-hunts: now we have the horror of homegrown jihadists. Finally, the belief in secret states, plotting politicians and sinister rich guys is, if anything, more prevalent than ever.
Science has also arrived to support the intuition that space must be more than emptiness, rocks and flames. In recent years we have been discovering exoplanets — those outside the solar system — by the hundred. We now know there must be billions out there, potential habitats for non-human intelligences — preachy, nasty or, with luck, just nice.
Mulder may be right: the truth may indeed be out there. But Scully has a point when she warns that “so are lies”.
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